An Ocean Journey with Whale Sharks and WildAid
It is 5 a.m when I awake on Isla Mujeres, a tiny island off the coast of Cancun. I am on a WildAid Expedition with my boyfriend and his family. We board a 32-foot fishing boat at 6 a.m. and head two hours out to sea, searching for the world’s largest gathering of whale sharks. Every year, between 300-500 whale sharks congregate in this area around the full moon during the third week in July.
My adrenaline overwhelms me as the boat is surrounded by these beautiful sharks that are circling around the boat. They grow from 30-60 feet in length and weigh up to 30-40 tons. I should point out here that although I like to scuba dive, I am scared to death to jump into the water with just my mask and fins.
In order to protect the whale sharks, only three people are allowed in the water at a time. Two groups of people go ahead of me, but I can feel my heart pounding in my chest as my turn gets closer and closer. Our guide is world-renowned photographer Jim Abernethy.
Jim looks deep into my eyes and says, “Keir, you have to trust me. You will be okay. Take deep breaths and remember: your suit is buoyant and so are you. Trust me. Now jump!”
In life, you’ll never regret what you did as much as what you didn’t do. I decide to trust him–and I jump into the water.
Jim is holding my hand and I feel safe as we swim…and suddenly, I am eye to eye with my first whale shark! Thirty five feet long, light gray with white dappled spots, it is like swimming alongside a school bus.
I swim to the side to get out of the way, and as I turn, another whale shark, and another, and another… around 300 whales sharks, swimming quietly in the ocean. All I can hear is the meditative sound of my breath through my snorkel, in and out, in and out.
The whole experience is hypnotic and humbling beyond words. To be swimming alongside sharks that are so large they practically don’t even know you’re there helps you realize just how important and connected all living things are. In the water, we see manta rays and sailfish in addition to all the sharks.
In the evenings back on Isla Mujeres, the WildAid team, teaches us about their preservation work. . . .
As well as provides us with delicious dinners every night.
Some facts I learned while on this WildAid expedition, are that every year:
* 73 million Sharks are killed for shark fin soup
* 35,000 Elephants are killed for their ivory
* 150 Tigers are killed for their body parts
* In 2012, 660 rhinos were killed for their horns
The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth over $10 billion (USD) per year and has drastically reduced many wildlife populations around the world. Many species, including sharks, tigers, rhinos, and elephants, have existed on our planet for millions of years and sit at the top of their food chains with no natural predators, except humans. The devastation caused by killing sharks is far greater than one could imagine. Sharks have helped maintain the balance of marine life in our oceans for the past 400 years. Research demonstrates that massive depletion of sharks is having cascading effects throughout our oceans. An estimated 1/3 of open-ocean shark species are currently threatened with extinction, with certain populations experiencing a 99% population decline.
Since 2000, WildAId’s Shark Conservation Program has successfully elevated the international profile of sharks and has highlighted the importance of global shark conservation, including achievement of finning legislation in the European Union, victories in key US states and UN resolution addressing shark finning problem. Their motto is “When the buying stops, the killing stops too!”. You can learn more about this amazing organization and the important work they do at www.wildaid.org.